Japan is a country that intimidates anyone who eats a plant-based diet. Everything, even their most basic soup stock, is made out of some form of seafood or meat. Yes, it is very real. However, there are ways to getting around it.
Before I go into that, let me be really honest with you about something.
Searching for plant-based food in Japan does takes some getting used to, especially if you can’t speak Japanese. Inevitably, you are going to occasionally bite into or even end up consuming some form of seafood along the way (unless you stick to a raw vegan diet or live off sweet buns and pastries).
My advice is this… don’t give up and don’t get too worked up if seafood creeps into your food whilst you are in Japan. You can choose to not eat it upon discovery. I named this post Being vegetarian in Japan because there have been so many times that I ended up consuming some form of dairy that I would be lying if I said that I eat fully plant-based in Japan.
Eating out as a vegetarian in a country where the idea of eating a plant-based diet has yet to be widely recognised can be a challenge. You do have to learn to question what you are buying and ultimately, trust the words of complete strangers. Yes, you will come across shops that will assure you a vegetarian meal, only to find out later that the miso soup did contain bonito flakes (made of fish). You will pick out a potato croquette in the supermarket thinking that it is vegetarian, only to find out that it contains shrimp. It isn’t going to be perfect.
But here is the thing. I have learnt to have fun and let go.
You can research vegetarian shops prior to your trip. Sure. You can bring some dry food into the country to eat. Of course. However, there is a real chance that the shop might be closed, or you can’t find it, or you simply want something warm and comforting on a cold winter night (no dry biscuits please!)
Learning to be flexible will help you to fight off the anxiety and remain calm enough to find something decent or even delicious (THAT is what I am after).
So what does my typical meal in Japan look like? I visited a vegan cafe called Paprika Shokudo some time back and I promise to write about it soon.
Visiting vegetarian/vegans shops aside, a really easy way to eat vegetarian is to visit Japanese supermarkets!
This was what I bought for 3 meals at a supermarket called Trial (in Osaka).
Top row: (From left to right) Oranges, tomatoes, strawberries, bitter coffee
Middle row: Plain rice, plain rice onigiri, potato croquettes, potato croquette bun
Bottom row: Salads, sliced spring onions (for extra kick), spicy seaweed
There were three purchases that were experimental. The spicy seaweed, the potato croquette bun and the bitter coffee.
The spicy seaweed was delicious with no seafood in it. I can’t read the labels in Japan so I bought it just to try, fully understanding that I might end up wasting it. I tried asking the lady at the cashier if this was “Begetarian” but she didn’t understand me, so I took the risk and bought it (and later confirmed with a Japanese friend that it was vegan). The risk paid off in this case. The seaweed was a huge HIT in my mouth and belly! I loved it. It was mildly spicy (I can eat VERY spicy so this was mild for me). But I smiled at the picture on the label that showed a character with tears flowing down it’s face, presumingly, because of the level of spiciness. You are truly kawaii, Japan! 😀
I love food that is spicy. Spicy food connects me to home and that is a comfort that I am willing to indulge in any day, any time and anywhere. I bought this spicy seaweed a second time before leaving Japan, I loved it that much!
The croquette bun, on the other hand, did contain shrimp. I have tried the plain croquettes (in the picture beside the bun) before and they were vegetarian (confirmed by a staff at the store who read the label for me) so I conveniently assumed that the bun would be using the same patty as well. Who knew! The bun contained mayo, which I was planning to scrap off before eating. I ended up eating just the bun and throwing the croquette away. I do not enjoy wasting food but I had taken a big bite into it and wasn’t close enough to anyone on that flight to offer food that I had tasted.
The bitter coffee, did contain milk. I ended up drinking it even though I generally avoid dairy. I realised later that I should have flipped it upside down to check if it did contain milk. The bottom was see-through. Didn’t realise. Bummer.
The following is the meal that I prepared for myself at the hotel.
When I am going to work, I would love to just pick up a bento set meal. However, that is not an option for me because bentos in Japan always contain some form of meat or seafood. So I prepare my own meals by buying food individually and putting them together.
The following is the meal that I prepared for myself for work.
I ate this together with one of the salads in the first picture, as well as a cup of green tea! Satisfying, healthy and perfect! These two meals above have been my favourite self-prepared meals in Japan so far.
To amp up the spice level, I did add some chilli oil to my rice. I am not 100% sure if this is vegetarian or vegan (the lady at the supermarket couldn’t assure me as well), but it tasted clean and meat-free to me, with just oil and chilli (would love a confirmation from a kind soul out there).
Below is the bottle of chilli oil that spiced up my meal! ❤
I haven’t even touched on the freshness of the fruits and vegetables in Japan. Fruits, in particular, can be expensive in Japan. However, the higher price is worth paying because of the quality of the produce you get. I wonder if the produce are organic, but the taste has definitely been different. I had the most delicious figs in Japan the last time. I went back looking for them this time as well, but they were gone. The season was over.
The oranges were soft, sweet and juicy. The tomatoes were slightly sweet and fresh. The strawberries were on clearance so some of them were losing their freshness (yes, two of them were mouldy), however, those that were good to eat were sweet with a pleasantly firm and sour bite. Yum!
Are you a vegetarian or vegan who lives in or frequently visits Japan? How do you overcome the challenges? What do you eat? Any recommendations? 😀 ❤